How do ordinary people survive in their native city after losing a war? The familiar civilization they've known all their lives has crumbled and must slowly be rebuilt brick by brick. People either give into despair or use their ingenuity to adapt and survive. In the aftermath of WWII, Berlin was jointly occupied by the Allied powers. American, British, French and Soviet forces patrol the city. Food is scarce, many buildings are partially-demolished and a thriving black market arises where cigarettes take the place of currency. Kasper Meier is a man in his early 50s. His age is somewhat immaterial as the effects of war have prematurely aged everyone: “In Berlin, a face full of lines carved out by dirt, fear and exhaustion didn’t tell you anything about someone’s age anymore.” Kasper has learned to navigate this devastated city landscape by bartering to obtain tins of ham or whatever foodstuff he can obtain in order to feed himself and his elderly father. He tries to keep a low profile and he has a good reason for doing so because he’s gay. Homosexuality was still criminalized after the fall of the Nazis and even those who were “gay Holocaust” survivors faced being re-imprisoned if they continued to engage in homosexual activity and their names were kept on a list of sex offenders. But Kasper has obtained a reputation for being well-connected and able to obtain information. This is when he’s approached by a mysterious woman named Eva who needs his help to find a British pilot. From this encounter Kasper is unwittingly drawn into a complex and suspenseful plot of revenge and murder.
1945 Berlin is a city rife with suspicion and paranoia. It’s haunted by the devastating consequences that war has brought to it and the people left behind (both German citizens and soldiers in the Allied forces) painfully mourn the loss of their loved ones and the life they led before. The end of winter doesn’t bring with it the hope of renewal. Rather it’s a city where “the warmth of spring had begun, in places, to bring back the smell of buried death that had plagued the city the previous summer – a sweet rotten fragrance carried on the searching gusts of April wind.” This season which traditionally brings with it the promise of new birth instead awakens the spectre of all that was lost. A group of skilfully written characters are plagued by difficult painful memories and the bleak reality of a ruined city. The most powerful character is Kasper himself who forges ahead despite images of his lost lover Phillip reverberating in his mind. He shies from talking about the past or the reason why he was scarred during the war (losing one of his eyes). Whenever he is asked about his eye he deflects the question by producing a comic answer such as: “Hindenburg did it with his Pickelhaube when I pulled his moustache.” He carefully continues to hide his sexuality from his elderly father and fears being exposed if he doesn’t assist Eva and her enigmatic employer. As the story progresses, Eva’s tale takes on a greater degree of complexity and the full terror of her difficult past comes out in a highly dramatic scene. Here “her hatred overwhelmed her and she let it come and she enjoyed it like biting down on an aching tooth.” The intensity with which this scene is composed is made all the more powerful from the outflow of bitter feelings which have been carefully concealed by her character for so long.
Before the war, Kaspar used to run a bar which from small descriptions I gather was a sort of low-key version of Christopher Isherwood’s famous cabaret portrayed in “Goodbye to Berlin.” The story in this novel follows a similarly colourful cast of characters who have been trodden down, but still retain their flair. It’s interesting coming to this novel after having read Audrey Magee’s novel “The Undertaking” earlier this year. Before reading either of these books I can’t remember having encountered any stories of post-war German life (Magee’s book partly follows a woman’s story throughout the war and after). Something both novels deal with is the rape of women in the city following the occupation from Allied forces. In his novel, Fergusson explores how rape isn’t a side-effect of war, but an active instrument used in the systematic way a nation is defeated. But for all the misery, betrayal and horror that comes with war, “The Spring of Kasper Meier” shows the surprising resilience of individuals as well as their ability to believe in the good of humanity and rely on each other for support after achieving a hard-won trust. Ben Fergusson has produced a really impressive debut novel that deserves to be read.